Schools are not Battlegrounds for Religions!

Babu Gogineni

I received today a communication on FB, shrieking that it was unjust for the authorities to consider suspension of a teacher who made students shout ‘Jai Shri Ram’ or ‘Hail Lord Rama’ in school. Was it Shri Ram or Jesus Christ that was born in India, it demands angrily. Can I not praise my Lord Rama in my own country, it wails. Does Bharat i.e. India belong to Hindus or to the westerners, it asks mindlessly. How dare they make Hindu children sing Christian prayers in Missionary Schools, it asks correctly. Pointing out that almost all Missionary schools in India ban girl pupils from wearing the bindi on the forehead and bangles on hands, it asks for banning of Christian Missionary Schools for violation of children’s rights.

Education Is Preparation for Society
A school must be a place where freedoms are nourished. Children in school must be allowed to grow by learning about everything appropriate to their age; they must be taught to develop their critical thinking and they must be prepared for future responsible roles in a complex society. Education is preparation for society and for improving the self and society.
Children should be taught about religion in social studies and history classes, just as they are taught other subjects. This means knowledge about religion, and does not mean that they have to pray or follow any religious rituals. They should not be forced to practice any religion. No one should preach any religion in any school, nor should atheism be preached or taught. These are really adult matters. Nor should the subjects being taught be influenced by religion or atheism. Neither biology, nor moral science.

Schools are for Education, Not Indoctrination
Schools are institutions where knowledge is acquired, and where children learn to collaborate with each other. Schools are for education, not indoctrination. Here is where pupils should learn about Human Rights. Here is where they should understand civilisation and its achievements. The modern school is one of them and the foundation for a healthy society. Please stay off the schools, and do not send messages like this which make people misunderstand the purpose of education. Schools are not battle grounds for religions.

No Saraswati Puja, No Namaaz, No Hosannas In School!
Even though religion is too serious and complex a subject for children, if it has to be introduced to them at all, then it should be at home, not at school, and by parents and not by teachers. This applies to Christian prayers as well as to Hindu prayers or any other religion’s prayer. No teacher should be promoting any religion! It is not their job, and would even be against their service rules!
If praising Jesus Christ in the class room is wrong, then praising Shri Ram is equally wrong! There should not be either Saraswati Puja nor should there be Christian prayers or Namaaz in schools. It is not about religious liberty – it is just that religion does not belong to the class room.
The law does not allow that at all in any government or fully government- aided schools in any case. Private schools could also adopt this best practice. Minority schools cannot coerce anyone to participate in prayer or in ritual. It is immoral and illegal. India Does Not Belong To The Hindus But of one thing we must be very clear – India does NOT belong to the Hindus or to other communities. She belongs to ALL her citizens who are individuals. Those of faith and those of none: citizens could be Hindus, Christians, Muslims or Humanists or Atheists. Our India also belongs to the world which has high expectations of high standards of democracy from her.
India has an ancient culture, but is also a new country which became an independent entity in 1947. The Republican Constitution came into effect in 1950 – it is the supreme law of the land. India was formed as a secular country, not as a Hindu country. It is blessed Pakistan which was created on the basis of religion while India was untainted by a religious identity and resolutely remained secular even after half a million Hindus and Muslims died in religious clashes during partition. Why are we losing our secularism in these more peaceful times?
A teacher is not a priest. A Hindu teacher cannot and should not teach Hinduism in school unless the subject of study is Hinduism. If that is the subject, the teaching should be academic. Propagating one’s religion can be done in the Temple or Church or Mosque without any interference from anyone.

Secularism and Minority Rights
Appeasement of any section of society is against Secularism and damages the secular character of the country. In any case, Secularism is an integral part of the basic structure of India and cannot be changed. The Supreme Court of India is clear. You cannot say ‘Jai Shri Ram’ in the class room. You cannot sing praises to Jesus Christ in the class room in the US or in France or Belgium etc. either.
Minority rights are needed for groups to retain their identity and to conduct their activities. There are international standards for protecting the rights of minorities which Indian has a sovereign obligation to conform to. These rights are precious and are a test of that country’s democracy – they are not really special rights for Muslims or Christians. Even language communities can be minorities – for example you can have a Telugu educational institution with minority status in New Delhi or a Marathi educational institution in Hyderabad. As an aside, do you know that many years ago Ramakrishna Math, established by the well-known Hindu monk Vivekananda, claimed Minority status saying Vivekananda established a separate religion? In 1995 the Supreme Court of India rejected their peculiar claims which were aimed at avoiding government control of their educational institutions. Nobody wants government interference, but minority rights are really about protection of identity.
All this does not mean that missionary schools should make children wear or not wear a particular style of dress. They have no right to do so. Any restrictions or dress codes should be within the guidelines of the Education department. And on this count, in many countries, children may not wear obviously religious dresses to school – the Islamic scarf or the Jewish kepi or the Christian cross. This is indeed tricky territory and not without controversy. For sure, the school can be a place where difference is celebrated, but that does not mean that officially there will be practice of religion by the teachers while discharging their duty.

Why Prayer at All?
Now, why do we need any religious prayer when children are anyway singing the National Anthem in school assemblies? Of course, even compulsory singing of National anthem has been challenged at the Supreme Court of India. In an important case, the teacher Sanjay Salve approached the High Court of Mumbai that he cannot sing a particular prayer because the prayer said all were children of God whereas he was the child of his parents! The court recently accepted he had a right not to say the prayer at school.
In any case, why not discuss the lives and thoughts of famous and important thinkers both religious and non religious in assemblies and in moral science classes? That would contribute more to social well being and nation building than bringing in religion which continues to divide people in the country.